Jeff Thomas cut across the middle of Zuppke Field at Memorial Stadium, snagged a 61-yard pass from Reyondous Estes and glided into the end zone, just as he had done 12 times before in 2016.
The third-quarter catch all but iced East St. Louis’ 26-13 win over Plainfield North in the Illinois class 7A championship game. It also put an exclamation point on Thomas’ All-American senior season.
Despite missing two games, Thomas caught 55 passes for a metro-east leading 1,093 yards. His two touchdown receptions in Champaign Saturday were the 13th and 14th of the year.
One question remains: What’s next?
“I’m going to take thing step by step, make some decisions that are best for me, then do the best I can to fit into a college program,” Thomas said.
Thomas has been recruited by the likes of Michigan, Ohio State, Auburn and others, but says he’s narrowed his college choice to the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Illinois Fighting Illini. It’s a decision he’ll likely make final during the February signing period.
In the meantime, Flyers’ assistant coach Terry Hawthorne, a member of the 2008 East St. Louis championship team and an All-Big 10 receiver at Illinois, has been mentoring Thomas through the process.
“He has been in this position same as me,” Thomas said. “He knows the way, I’m just trying to learn from him.”
Thomas is just one on a team full of seniors that put East St. Louis on the top of the Associated Press 7A poll after the second week of the season, yet curiously was shut out of the All-State team.
So far, only the quarterback, Estes, has made a verbal commitment to Missouri. Several others figure to get at least a look by Division I programs.
“It’s a good group, so we’re looking for seven or eight guys to make announcements on signing day,” said Flyers coach Darren Sunkett.
But the District 189 teachers’ strike that cut the 2015 season short after the fifth week put the recruiting process on delay.
Linebacker James Knight (6-foot, 210 pounds) led the metro-east with 137 tackles to go along with five sacks and a pair of fumble recoveries. He says he’s got an offer on the table from Western Michigan of the Division-I Mid-American Conference, but is hoping for more now that the Flyers have wrapped up their championship season.
“We thought we would be here last year, too,” Knight said. “But we didn’t play games, so there’s no film and our highlight tapes are short.”
Other seniors on the short list of East St. Louis Division-I prospects include linebackers Ken Dixon (111 tackles, 10 sacks, interception), Terrez Lagrone (75 tackles, 4 sacks), and LaMontre Harvey (112 tackles, 11 sacks, 3 fumble recoveries) as well as defensive backs Markevion Darough (82 tackles, 3 interceptions) and Tayler Cook (81 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 interceptions).
“Having the season end like that the guys didn’t get a chance to grow and mature as athletes,” Sunkett said. “I think people don’t understand what losing that experience really costs a football player. Hats off to them, though, for working as hard as they did to prepare for this season. They had to mature fast.”
Harvey has received a scholarship offer from Southeast Missouri State, but hopes the championship run will draw a few more. Then again, he thought being undefeated and the top-ranked 7A team in the state would help garner some attention from All-State voters, too.
“I don’t know what that’s all about, but we’ve got something better — a state championship,” Harvey said.